Brian Boucher, Art in America, March 2009

Review: Martin Mull's "Seven Deadly Sins"

By Brian Boucher
Art in America
March 26, 2009

From Brueghel to Bruce Nauman, artists have taken on those standard Christian vices, the Seven Deadly Sins. As if to suit our relatively secular era, when such inventories might seem passé, actor and painter Martin Mull recently offered, at Stellan Holm, a fittingly tongue-in-cheek interpretation. As in his previous work, he continues to mine photographic imagery of postwar America, edging each canvas with a painted gray or brown border as if to refer to its photographic source. While he often uses children’s books and other popular sources for his imagery, the new paintings are based on found amateur snapshots, and Mull’s great care in reproducing these humble, anonymous pictures, down to their overexposures and uncertain focus, results in a kind of gawky tenderness.

Seven of the exhibition’s 13 mostly grisaille paintings (all works 2008, oil on linen) hung together in the front room and are each named for one of the cardinal sins. Without the titles, even the most astute viewer would be hard-pressed to divine which image corresponded to which offense, because the images are comically unsuited to the sins they supposedly show, as if to question the very possibility of illustrating the subject. In one, a balding man in a patterned cardigan sweater squints against the sun’s glare as he stands with arms awkwardly akimbo. Over his right shoulder is a leafy tree, at his left a field onto which dozens of parachuters descend from a trio of airplanes. This, for whatever reason, is Greed. And what is so objectionable about the seemingly chaste middle-aged couple at the beach in modest swimwear in Lust? In Envy, showing two office workers at their—to all practical purposes—indistinguishable desks, the viewer is left to wonder, who envies whom?

Some of the strangeness of the scenes derives from the fact that Mull pieces together his found sources before painting them, so the burgher in Greed was probably not originally, as it appears, posing with an invading force. It is sometimes only inconsistencies in focus or lighting that betray the cut-and-paste process; Mull tricks the viewer by offering seemingly photorealistic scenes that have a surreal improbability.

In the gallery’s back room hung several paintings departing from the Deadly Sins theme. Some were more clearly based in pastiche, as is much of Mull’s previous work. In Global Warming, for example, a staid-looking couple and their young son pose for the camera while a nudist volleyball game proceeds behind them; the ball hangs like some mysterious orb over the father’s head. Other paintings, rather than going for obvious incongruity, seem to rely on the pure charm and curiosity of the found photographs.

Born in 1943, raised in Ohio and now a Los Angeles resident, Mull describes the visual culture of the 1950s that he knows from his early life, but the work is hardly simply nostalgic. Nor is it, like much previous work, an easy lampooning of the way postwar America chose to see itself. These understated new paintings are more intriguing for the way they walk such a delicate line between wistfulness and sarcasm.